EEOC Task Force Reconvenes to Discuss How to Transform #MeToo into Harassment-Free Workplaces

More than a year before #MeToo, a Select Task Force was created by President Obama to examine the problem of sexual harassment at the workplace. The Select Task Force consisted of a select group of outside experts who analyzed the causes and effects of workplace harassment and made recommendations what should be done to prevent it. The Select Task Force’s Report of the Co-Chairs of the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace was published in 2016 before the #MeToo movement.

The mission of the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace was to determine the extent to which harassment impacts employees of various industries nationwide, as well as how best to mediate this behavior. The Task Force operated in conjunction with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and its eighteen (18) members include academics, lawyers, EEOC representatives, and other experts from all across the country.  The Select Task Force’s June 2016 Report outlined that analyzed the different factors that increase the risk of workplace harassment, how workplace harassment impacts employees and productivity, and how workplaces can both address and prevent the occurrence of harassment in their office. The eruption of movements have revealed the continuing epidemic of sexual harassment in the workplace which has caused an renewed interest in the report.

The report revealed that Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received approximately 30,000 charges of workplace harassment in 2015 alone. This statistic is even more shocking in light of the Select Task Force’s finding that only 25% of the victims report the harassment to their employers. In fact, reporting harassment to the employer is the least common response to harassment.  Victims of sexual harassment fear disbelief, inaction, or blatant retaliation by their superiors or the harasser.

The report also found that while any workplace can be plagued by harassment, there are several risk factors that increase the potential for harassing behavior. These include workforces that are dominated by a single race or sex, where a diverse individual can be easily recognized and ostracized creating a hostile work environment. Workplaces that experience cultural or language differences, young workforces, industries that rely upon customer satisfaction, and industries that tolerate or encourage alcohol consumption all experience harassment at a higher rate than the average. Industries with power disparities, such as the military, are also at a higher risk for harassing behavior.

The 2016 Select Task Force report addresses methods that workplaces should use to prevent the occurrence of harassment. One of the most important factors cited in preventing harassment is ensuring that leadership maintains a diverse and inclusive workforce culture and purveys a sense of urgency about putting a stop to harassment. Systems to hold leadership accountable for this, as well as for any unprofessional behavior, must also be in place, with specific and effective policies and procedures. Responses to complaints must consistently be timely, thorough and complete; a single bad reporting experience can significantly discourage other victims from reporting.  In regards to anti-harassment training, the task force explains that training should not focus on legal standards of harassment with the intention of avoiding a lawsuit. Training should instead be part of a holistic effort to inform employees about the consequences of harassing behavior, as well as how an employee can both intervene in and report harassment.

Among the aforementioned prevention strategies, the EEOC Task Force discusses the importance of attitudes such as those emphasized by the “It’s on Us” campaign, which demands that everyone, especially bystanders, take action when they see harassment. In addition to this, the Select Task Force recommends that every workplace maintain a strict anti-harassment policy, the effectiveness of which should be tested frequently. User friendly educational resources should be provided and advertised to employees as well. In an article entitled #MeTooWhatNext: Strengthening Workplace Sexual Harassment Protections and Accountability”, the National Women’s Law Center discusses the mission of restoring the voices of victims and getting rid of employer- imposed non-disclosure clauses as essential steps in addressing sexual harassment in the workplace, in addition to those named by the 2016 EEOC Report.

The Special Task Force reconvened last month to continue its discussion of workplace sexual harassment and how employers can prevent and stop it. Those who attended, including legal scholars and employment attorneys discussed important legal issues concerning sexual harassment, including the impact of non-disclosure and arbitration agreements and the numerous legislation recently passed in states across the country. They also  discussed the importance of using the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements to continue to draw attention to workplace harassment.